Sometimes, Racism Is Just Racism
No excuses for the OU frat boys.
The story about a bunch of young racists bound together under the fraternal bonds of exclusion and utter stupidity has grown with leaps and bounds over the course of the last week. For those not in the know, members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma were videotaped on a bus doing a disgusting and disturbingly celebratory fraternal chant. I’ll spare you the lot of it, but just know that the overall point is that black men are not welcomed within their organization.
The video shows the fraternity brothers with eager smiles as they delight at the notion of lynching.
What we’ve seen in this case is a swift and decisive condemnation of the culture of racism from the administration. The university immediately shut down the fraternity chapter, and some students have even been expelled. The most noteworthy thing about this response is the rarity at which bigotry is condemned so unilaterally and without tolerance. There is always someone to characterize a racist act as a lapse in judgment or an opportunity for growth.
But sometimes racism is just racism.
While there are some who will surely ascribe the events caught on video as the act of a few bad seeds or emblematic of the animal house behavior bred in fraternities, the fact is that members of SAE are participating in what seems to be a tradition of taught, learned, and propagated racism, at least within that chapter. And when one watches the tape it’s hard to deny that the group is experiencing raucous glee. It’s racism. It’s not a phase. It’s not a youthful indiscretion or the early warning signs of a quarter-life crisis.
And we shouldn’t be afraid to say that as plainly as the University of Oklahoma has.
“He is a good boy, but what we saw in those videos is disgusting,” Brody and Susan Pettit said of their son, one of the two students who were expelled.
It seems difficult for many people to reconcile that racism, like any other belief system, does not require a person to be a person who is completely reprehensible. I would imagine that racists live like anyone else does – they tell jokes, they love their families, they are supportive of their friends.
So it is no wonder that the Pettits would find it hard to digest that their son also, harbors prejudice (and, judging by the words to the chant, violent intent) towards people of color, as they are not on the receiving end of his ire.
But that does not make their son any less culpable or his words any less reprehensible.
The mea culpas, the clamoring for forgiveness when caught with one’s pants down — or with one’s hood up, as it seems — doesn’t undo what we’ve already seen, and more importantly, what the men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon have already done. And you can’t argue with video, unless, of course, you’re the grand jury in the Eric Garner case.
And “men,” well, that’s an interesting word to use here, isn’t it? The individuals seen on the incriminating video are seldom identified in any of the reporting that’s circulated about this incident. They have been called “students” and “frat boys” and yes, individuals, which makes for another interesting point about how the media is unpacking this story.
Eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was a man in the eyes of the media. Trayvon Martin was a young adult. Both were considered thugs. Tamir Rice, aged 12, was perceived as a 20-year-old man by the officers who killed him. Steve Loomis, the elected president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, described the boy as “menacing…He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures. He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.”
Their murders sparked a title wave of coverage about the realities of black men in America, their murders, the result of years of unchecked, implicit, so-called accidental racism.
If college-aged white men are children, and black minors are adults, then I challenge my colleagues in the media to explore their own bias and the role it plays in their ability to report a story and disseminate information. I challenge my colleagues to start a new dialog that dismantles the false notion of millennial post-racialism. Racism is even more dangerous and even more insidious when it hides and plain sight and becomes the tie that binds.
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